Interactive – and shallow? — fiction spells contentious Vookworm

Let’s say that you’re a novelist a bit bored with yourself and by the usual plots, who feels like trying to put two characters into a gravity-smashing relationship with each other.

Why not, say, a woman who allows herself to be seduced by a much younger man? Would she necessarily have to look like Demi Moore or Francesca Annis for this romance to get off the ground – and with or without the alpha-to-omega knife work that made Demi the cheerful, landmark advertisement for plastic surgery that she is?

How do you demonstrate — believably — that there’s nothing seriously wrong with your male character when he chooses this love interest over internet porn depicting lovelies as dewy-eyed as fake or real twelve year-olds, or flesh-and-blood women his own age or younger? Would you necessarily have to make him as wild as Demi’s Ashton Kutcher or as gnomish and remote as Ralph Fiennes, Francesca’s ex-partner of something like a decade?

So you post a few pages of this story on your website, refreshed by stretching your imagination for a psychological high-wire act. But then in the comments section beneath your work-in-progress, you find a reader usually well-behaved and cooperative spitting nails. ‘Never!’ says the post. You ask, ‘Why not?’ And the outraged commenter types, ‘Because it’s not a relationship that’s going to go anywhere.’ [my ital.]

Time for me to admit, now, that I’ve borrowed most of that disagreement from real life – specifically, from Alexander McCall Smith‘s riveting piece in The Wall Street Journal of all places, about a fortnight ago. He explained that he’s been publishing a Scottish series of books with a fortysomething heroine and a lover fourteen years her junior – ‘considerably younger,’ he said. He got into the argument with a reader making the case for undefeatable gravity at a book signing in Australia. He told her that he thought that the romance ‘was going rather well.’

Again my reader lost no time in replying. “No, it isn’t,” she said emphatically.

That was me put in my place. After all, I was merely the author. As it happens, Isabel’s relationship with Jamie had not been my idea in the first place, but had come about because at an earlier stage in the series I came under attack from a journalist — another woman — for not allowing Isabel to become romantically involved with Jamie. I had originally intended that their friendship be platonic, but had been told in the course of an interview with this journalist that I really had to allow something closer to develop. “Your readers will expect it,” she said. “And it would be so empowering for them.”

Not one to stand between my readers and their empowerment, I had decided to let Isabel develop a romantic liaison, only to be taken to task later by my Sydney critics for exactly this.

And there you have one reason why I find it so hard to wax enthusiastic about the prospect of collaborative (and) (or) interactive fiction, as I told our Talleyrand of the blogosphere, @BaronCharlus – technically @exitbarnadine, now — on this very site. Writers working alone are already taxed by choosing from such a superabundance of imaginative possibilities – switching from one set to another, reversing themselves, arguing furiously against their own decisions – that some (for instance, John le Carré) notoriously lean heavily on editors to keep their own plots straight. And anyway, how can literary composition and decisions subsequently second-guessed, contorted and distorted by a nearly dialectical process, like the one McCall Smith endured, count as improving anything? Literary quality? Plausibility? Proof of the depth of an author’s understanding of his characters – or of life experience re-imagined or recollected in tranquillity?

Still, this post is actually an admission of defeat, since technological change – I refuse to equate it with progress, in this instance – is apparently pushing us in the direction of shallow literary conception-by-committee, willy-nilly.

The kind of multimedia book-as-Bondmobile recently considered in this space already has a name – a Vook, if the man who coined it is as influential as he hopes to be. He made a fortune in property and has established his own company specialising in the ‘author videos’ to which @Sean Murray has introduced us, and is also reported to have written a thriller all by himself. Here is the New York Times’ description of his Vook vision:

Plenty of authors dream of writing the great American novel.

Bradley Inman wants to create great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream — and then roll them all into a multimedia hybrid that is tailored to the rapidly growing number of digital reading devices.

Collaboration is naturally at the heart of the idea – as in his demonstration of a proto-Vook, built from his own novel, whose title doesn’t trip quite so lightly on tongues as his neologism. For The Right Way to Do Wrong, he

got TurnHere to film two dozen short videos with actors that augment the book’s main mystery.

If I had to settle for giving just one reason why I think that books really are going to be displaced by Vookishness – and sooner than we think – it’s the endemic distractibility, the death of concentration, that the same article mentions:

Even worse, on multipurpose reading devices like the iPhone, more immediately gratifying pastimes like video games are a click away for readers with short attention spans.

And this reasoning also struck me as sound:

“Publishers are going to be confronted with the idea that either the words on the page have to be completely compelling on their own, or they have to figure out a way to create new sorts of subliminal draws in the new medium,” said Sara Nelson, the former editor of Publishers Weekly and a publishing industry consultant.

Ms. Nelson has seen the Vook prototype and says it is intriguing, but the challenge is to avoid feeling gimmicky. “If you are going to put video in a book, it has to flow so naturally into the story that readers don’t even realize they are switching mediums,” she said.

…. Collaboration is seen by many as virtually the nervous system of the digital camels swaying lumpily into view (as in ‘horse designed by committee’), @BaronCharlus will be delighted to see — for instance:

WEBook, a venture-backed start-up in New York, allows people to collaborate on writing books and is working on new ways to let readers give writers real-time feedback on their work.

Perhaps one kind of novel-writing – though in the near future, I expect we’ll say, novel-direction – will simply become a branch of Civics, and we’ll forget that novels were ever about high aesthetics, or certainly inspiration from a single set of viscera. McCall Smith concluded from his experience with his dissenting readers, that

… the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent. . . . Stories … are part of our moral conversation as a society.

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19 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Social trends, The blogosphere, The sound of blogging

19 responses to “Interactive – and shallow? — fiction spells contentious Vookworm

  1. sean murray

    Good piece again, wordy.

    I believe text-within-film has greater potential than vice-versa (though obviously the greatest potential of all is to submerge the lot — and perhaps our very souls — within ‘compelling Twitter stream’). Lit as pure text is in a similar position to jazz in the mid-80s. Standards have clearly collapsed and cultural irrelevance, joke-status and an ever-shrinking, aging, ever more musty and pinched-lipped audience await (which might explain ALK’s depressing biblioblogge pieces).

    Hard to know when to officially declared it ‘over’, Nick Lezard-style, but if Geoff Dyer’s Jeff [with a J] in Venice, Death in Varanasi makes the Booker shortlist, that’ll do for me.

  2. sean – I don’t read much lit-fic probably for the reasons you’ve suggested but re; jazz. Yes it’s irrelevant in one way but not in another. Surely there is value in watching someone fantastic playing anywhere?

    It doesn’t have to be in a “culturally relevant” venue or to an audience “that matters” does it?

    The soundtrack to our show Compost Mentis features Harry Beckett on the soundtrack – an 80+ year old Barbadian trumpeter who has played with the likes of Mingus amongst others. Lovely guy, open attitude and a unique trumpet style.

    For sure when he plays in clubs he’s playing to the converted but plays so well that you just think “it’s a pity more people don’t see him” rather than he’s wasting his and our time. But I’m not sure wider relevance or acceptance would change him for the better ( you can hear him on Working Week’s Venceramos – the only good track to come out of the London Soul/Acid jazz movement imho ).

    Surely ploughing those lonely furrows and sticking to your guns should be celebrated ?????

    We all slide off the radar eventually but it’s what we do when we’ve slud that counts – no?

  3. sean murray

    All true, Al, but I’m certainly not suggesting that a lit equivalent of Harry Beckett be dismissed or booed offstage. I’m not recommending anything, really, just splurging my monthly disgust and sadness at the state of the lit world. It’s obviously up to others to decide whether they want to enter/remain in a dying artform.

  4. Sean – monthly disgust – splendid! I trust you’ll manage to get it down to fortnightly by the middle of the year 🙂

    For the sake of sanity I find it best to ignore the surroundings and buckle down to work – which I notice you must do too judging by your blog.

    Just been working at an event in Cardiff and have seen the ghastly future – luke-warm, polite, ambitionless acts who know how to schmooze the promoters and assure themselves a career.

    We get by in terms of work but just can’t compete with that ruthless approach and end up slack-jawed by the utter lack of artistic adventure.

  5. Captain Ned

    The ghastly future… how differently ghastly is this future from how it’s always been, alarming? Ever since money’s been involved in art (i.e. past all remembering), there’s been the same old rigmarole of the ambitious schmoozing of the artistically ambitiousless. Perhaps it really is getting worse, I don’t know… I don’t have much to compare it with in terms of personal experience of previous eras. All I know is that a lot of shit does well, and a lot of good stuff gets ignored; it was ever thus.

  6. Captain Ned – absolutely correct but from time to time other possibilities of other futures make themselves seen briefly. Cardiff was just a particularly depressing reminder of the old maxim that shit floats.

  7. wordnerd7

    Thanks, Sean, and this is probably an important distinction — that I think you’re right about:

    === I believe text-within-film has greater potential than vice-versa ===

    Cinema, video and theatre are inherently collaborative, and also more tolerant of intercutting and multi-media — because so often structurally looser and more baggy — than really good fiction. . . Re: what you said about ALK. . . On the biblioblogge, I think that they like to see the status quo upheld, keep new ideas out as far as possible, . . . judging by, eg., the rather gormless post on editors at the weekend, which added nothing to the debate, as far as I could tell. He could have made his piece far more interesting with interwebbing — referring to discussions of the subject elsewhere on the net. For instance, ours, over here … only they are stingy, on that site, about giving the blogosphere credit for anything.

    @CaptainNed, in the point you made to @Alarming in your last post here . . . you’re right about that being an ancient complaint — what’s new is that it’s the mercantalist perspective on what’s good or bad or right or wrong in art that dominates conventional thinking, and creates the ruling yardsticks.

    === Surely ploughing those lonely furrows and sticking to your guns should be celebrated ????? ===

    I’m sorry about the floating sewer at Cardiff, @Alarming — all too easy to believe. . . Yes of course, about celebrating the lonely furrows . . . but are even YOU . . . : ) . . . prepared to sacrifice as much for performance art as this man growing a tiny microphone in an actual _ear_ cultivated on his arm (yes you read that right, people) — to let everyone anywhere on the net hear what he hears at any time of day or night . .. … A brief pause in the exercise, at present, as he recovers from an infection . . .

    Unfortunately the microphone became seriously infected and had to be removed. “I could have lost an arm for an ear,” Stelarc said.

    Stelarc’s own tissues and blood vessels have since grown into the prosthesis, anchoring it permanently. More surgeries are planned to improve its sculptural relief, including adding a bag of his own stem cells for an earlobe.

    “The ear visualizes that idea that we can now engineer additional organs, Internet-enabled, to better function in the technological terrain that we now inhabit,” he said. “It is also an image of excess, of ambivalence and of the alternate.”

    Once the microphone is reinstalled, Stelarc said, anything it “hears” will be wirelessly transmitted to the Web. Someone in Paris could log in and hear what Stelarc is up to in Australia — or presumably hear him snoring.

    Stelarc says he understands that some people may be uneasy and squeamish about what he is doing. For his own part, he said, “You’re never in your comfort zone.” Such is the price of being a performance artist.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/science/14corp.html

  8. WN Have you seen the photos of Stelarc suspended high in the air by hooks in his flesh? Startling. They must be somewhere on the web. Interresting avenue to explore but you are correct – he’s on his own as far as that goes.

  9. wordnerd7

    === Have you seen the photos of Stelarc suspended high in the air by hooks in his flesh? ===

    Honestly can’t imagine why, @Alarming, but I haven’t any desire to see that, in any medium — ever. Looking at the photograph of the eary arm in the link I put in my post is quite gruesome enough. . . Hard not to wonder if he’s simply short of a few nerve endings in his skin?

    === he’s on his own as far as that goes. ===

    Funny you say that, because word has reached me of Stelarc posting exactly the same comment on someone’s blog — about two people nearly asphyxiating themselves in the construction of a ginormous pink porker. . . Obviously a nonstop oneupmanship contest between you people– ? … 🙂

  10. Wn It’s a war out there.

    Stelarc is actually interesting – even if you end up concluding that there are kangaroos in his top paddock. He’s interested in the body as an autonomous machine apart from consciousness. One of those ” is it art? Is it science? does it matter? ” merchants. I suspect a retrospective would include many hair-raising photos and ideas.

  11. wordnerd7

    === there are kangaroos in his top paddock. ===

    I’ve never seen that said better.

    This, for me, is when blogging approaches magic . . . I find an article about an artist I’ve never heard of — in a piece by someone who usually writes about physics — and you of course know _all_ about him. . . . Not the smallest chance of anyone in my circle of embodied friends (not a dullard among them) being able to tell me anything one-tenth as interesting on the subject.

  12. Captain Ned

    === there are kangaroos in his top paddock. ===

    I’ve never seen that said better.

    Indeed. I intend to use that phrase every day for at least two weeks. I just can’t imagine that the pleasure of using it will ever wear off. Hope you don’t mind, alarming.

  13. It’s not my phraseit but the web will no doubt unearth that origin. so feel free – it’s one of those ” a few bricks short of a full hod/ a few sandwiches short of a picnic” expressions – I can’t remember who originally said

    Stelarc being Australian and willing to sew ears on his arms seemed an appropriate recipient of the expression.

  14. Sorry about the grammar above – a whole chunk of what I wrote suddenly appeared elsewhere in the comment.

    In the first sentence .”..it but the web will no doubt unearth that origin ” should be at the end of the first paragraph after ” I can’t remember who originally said…”

  15. Captain Ned

    There’s another good Australian expression I came across once: ‘The wheel is turning, but the hamster’s dead.’

  16. wordnerd7

    No worries, @Alarming, . . . certainly not on this newly Ozzified thread . . . 😉 .

    I love CaptainNed’s contribution, too. Do all their finest expressions have animals in them, I wonder.

  17. Hi Wordn,

    For personal reasons I’ve not been too cheerful around the subject of publishingetc. recently but was, as ever, touched to be noted in your post.

    After some crazy weeks I’m now resident in Berlin for the next few months; any ideas to take me off the LonelyPlanet itineray?

  18. dear editor: itinerary.

  19. wordnerd7

    @eb/@BC, some of the most famous literary figures of our time couldn’t be more unhappy with the publishing world, and I hope that you’ll take some comfort from that fact. I’ll have a bit more to say on a related subject, soon . . . Sorry I know nothing about Berlin, but have you thought of blogging about a newcomer’s experience of the city that has displaced Madrid as the Continent’s cultural hotspot?

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